Here are some things I wish I was thinking about on day 1. But I don’t beat myself up about it! And, I think it’s better to have your day 1 as soon as possible, instead of accumulating knowledge and honing the perfect approach. There’s always more to learn!
Take a mental inventory of the resources (land, knowledge, people, equipment) you have access to. Just start. Work hard to overcome obstacles, but don’t spin your wheels. Improve one thing every day. Look for the first mover advantage. The competitive angle that resonates with your market. Get the freshest seeds possible for a genotype or cultivar that your market is hungry for. Focus on just-in-time, instead of just-in-case.
Assess your starting point
Take a mental inventory
Look at what you have. Do you have access to a large yard with good southern exposure? Maybe you have a side yard where you could put a lean-to greenhouse. Or maybe your basement is empty and you have some spare shelving. Do you have lights that you could convert to provide a fuller spectrum for plant growth?
You can start to form some initial ideas about whether you’ll be doing gardening and farming from the start, or if you’ll be growing microgreens or something less space intensive. Microgreens are a great option if you’re in an apartment or don’t have land you can farm.
Map your network
There is a lot to learn, and every city and area is different. Do you have farmers in the family? Health conscious friends that do a lot of shopping at farmers markets? Maybe there are business incubators you could visit to learn about new food businesses that are causing a buzz locally.
And no matter if you don’t have access to great infrastructure and people, the most important thing is to get started.
Just get started
Do you have any old seeds laying around or house plants? Try propagating your houseplants through cuttings. Try an experiment to see if your old seeds will germinate. Ask around, if you don’t have any seeds or plants, someone you know probably will.
Start with grocery or hardware store seeds if that’s what’s easily available. It’s probably better to get started and do a bad job, than delay starting.
Take the path of least resistance
If you’re trying a batch of seeds and they just won’t grow properly, switch to a new supplier or fresher batch. It’s good to have a course, a loose plan. But if things start going sideways, re-chart.
Maybe your soil fertility sucks! Can you farm somewhere else?
It’s important to have a few backup plans. This is the essence of strategy. If X then Y. Take the time to think through your options. Apply your effort where you expect the best results. Don’t give up too easily, but if something is consistently failing, look for a new way forward.
Be water my friend – Bruce Lee
Improve one little thing every day
You don’t have to have a profitable full-time operation from day one. Start where you are, have some kind of end goal, and take steps every day to move towards it.
Read something new. Talk to someone new. Try something new. Every day.
This is what I try to do, and there’s a long ways for all of us to go. By continual improvement you’re always moving forwards. Small improvements really add up over time. It can surprise you if you stick with it long enough.
Focus on information
Most of the world’s information is at our fingertips. This is completely transformational to all industries. There are incredible new techniques and solutions that can dramatically increase crop and food production, but not if you don’t seek them out.
New information used to be a luxury, but now it’s critical. If you don’t continually improve, your competitors eventually will.
Don’t worry about fancy certifications, degrees, or educational programs. They can be great, but they’re sort of a vanity or luxury item. Hands-on experience, meeting other people, and voraciously consuming new information will put you ahead.
Youtube is an incredible source of information. Do a search for microgreens, or urban farming. You’ll definitely find something new.
Google scholar. While it can seem a bit dense, google scholar has well-researched papers from across the world. People poor years into research, and sum it all up for you in a handful of pages. You can really get to the bottom of things if you go straight to the cold hard research. It might seem daunting, but you can do it.
Search Google. There are effectively infinite blogs on the internet. There are around 1.7 million websites out there, and 600 million of them are blogs. You can imagine more than one or two have something to say about urban farming and microgreens.
For blogs, look for people who have actually done it. Look for real data and photos that show what they’ve done. This helps separate the re-circulated content from the original, first hand stuff (the good stuff!)
Just in time vs just in case
This is something I try to apply across my life. Instead of reading tangential information, solve the problems in front of you. What’s the next critical action to move forward? Find information to help you make the best decision that’s right in front of you, then do it.
It’s easy to order a bunch of books, or go down a Youtube rabbit hole and get lost in “useful” but procrastinating research. Don’t buy all that stuff that could come in handy (unless the deal is truly too good to pass up, and you could re-sell it in a pinch).
Try to focus your effort on moving forwards, and deliberately seeking the information, resources, and connections that will get you there.
First mover advantage
Other people doing something similar to what you’re planning is a blessing and a curse. It’s good because it proves that there’s a market. But its competition.
You can be the first mover in our market in a lot of different ways:
- Growing a unique cultivar
- Be the first to grow something locally
- Offer faster delivery, harvest hours before delivery!
- Be the first Youtuber for your niche
- The first local TV appearance!
- Market in a new way: cut your microgreens fresh at the farmer’s market if no-one is doing it.
- Approach stores that aren’t selling your product and get them interested
If you’re the first person to do something, you have an edge. You don’t have to be the first person to grow carrots, that’s impossible! But you could be the first person to grow carrots locally, within the city limits. Or the first person to grow a specific cultivar of microgreens, for a specific application.
Do something new that adds value, and you’ll stand out.
Maybe your starting point is that you come from a farming family, or have a lot of land in the family. Or you have a good amount of cash to invest. Wherever you’re coming from it’s a good idea to start small.
You’re going to be learning and iterating most rapidly in the beginning as you test things out, figure out what grows, and what sells. So you don’t want to dump all your resources into the prototype! Save some resources for once you’re starting to figure things out.
What if you plant all your land and then find out your soil is majorly deficient in something, or has a heavy metal contamination?
Or thinking about microgreens:
What if you set up your whole basement with one microgreen system. Then you start networking over the next few weeks and you tour a way better system. And it costs less too! That would suck! Keep a little powder in reserve for opportunities.
And small will be relative. One person’s small is another person’s end goal. Don’t compare yourself to others.
Compare you to you
It can knock the wind out of your sails if you compare yourself to the guy who has hundreds of thousands of subscribers on Youtube, and has been urban farming for ten years. Don’t do that!
Compare yourself to when you first started. As long as you make steady small steps forward, you’ll be looking back and probably surprise yourself with your progress.
Don’t worry about the guy that has a degree in agronomy so his soil will be better. Or the aquaponics guy with an engineering degree. Or the 4th generation farmer. Those are all besides the fact.
If you focus on what matters, which is getting the right information, applying it, and consistently learning. You’ll be in the mix in no time.
Focus on seeds
A lot of problems can be fixed as you go along. Soil can be amended, deficiencies can be corrected, and equipment can be macgyvered. But seeds are critical.
If you buy a big bag of the wrong seeds, you’re in for a rough ride. Do your research and look for the following information:
- Untreated or Organic (important for microgreens and sprouts). This means the seeds are untreated, so you won’t have residues. Residues may be fine if you’re eating the mature plant, but for sprouts and microgreens you’re eating a lot more of it. Fungicides and insecticides are commonly applied.
- Date of harvest. Just any old date won’t do. Often the date of packaging is given. But seeds could be harvest, sit for years, then be packaged.
- Germination Rate. Large seed suppliers should give you an idea of the germination rate you should be able to expect. If a supplier is testing and documenting their seeds, it’s a great sign.
- Botanical name. This can help make sure you’re getting what you expected. Common names can be loose and a bit of a mixed bag.
- Reviews online. Often companies that have been around a while will have reviews scattered across the internet. It can be hard to tell a real review from a fake one. So good reviews don’t necessarily tell you that much, especially if the good reviews are low in number. But a bad review is a bad review.
- Take a mental inventory of what you have, and who you know. Start building connections and discussing ideas. You might have access to more than you thought, spread your ideas around.
- Start with what you have. Even if you’re urban farming your clay pot on your desk. Get grocery store seeds and grow herbs. Just start.
- Take the path of least resistance. Do as Bruce Lee recommends, be like water my friend. Move forward deliberately, but if an obstacle gets in your way, move around it.
- Continually improve. Try to improve one little thing every day. Read something new, watch a new Youtube video, try something new. Focus on new information and applying it.
- Look for first mover advantages. Fill a niche. Be the first to do something locally. Be the next wave, the first to grow microgreens, the first to harvest them in front of the customer. Find an angle. Try multiple new angles, something will resonate.
- Get the best seeds you can. Fresh seeds will grow faster and give a higher quality product. Find a crop that your market is hungry for.
I’m Alex Lafreniere. I learned a lot about plants when I built and operated a landscaping company. But, there’s always more to learn. Ever since travelling across the world, I’ve wanted to find ways to bring more tropical and exotic plants into my life. This is the site where I share everything I’ve learned with you.
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